Vancouver forges new paths in revival of psychedelic research

published on January 31, 2018 by Travis Lupick in The Georgia Straight

The B.C. Centre on Substance Use has assembled a team that’s positioning Vancouver as a global force in investigating mind-altering drugs for the treatment of addiction and mental disorders

In 2011, Gerald Thomas was invited to an Indigenous community in a remote area of British Columbia. Working for the Centre for Addictions Research of B.C., he was one of a small team of scientists who observed 12 people take ayahuasca, an Amazonian mixture that induces vivid visual and auditory hallucinations as well as deep emotional and intellectual reflection.

“The ceremonies themselves are really intense,” Thomas told the Georgia Straight in a telephone interview. “People are pushed to their emotional edge.”

The group remained in a longhouse and its surrounding forest for four days. They slept on its dirt floor and bathed in the nearby river. It wasn’t your typical experiment, Thomas conceded. At the same time, he explained how the team observed rigorous protocols for research involving human subjects.

“There were months of work getting ethics approval, designing the study, finding the instruments that we would use to collect psychometric data. Then, for four days, we were all holed up in a longhouse.”

Most of the 12 patients were victims of severe childhood trauma who struggled with addictions to a variety of drugs: alcohol, cocaine, and opioids such as heroin.

“One man described how, when they were kids, their parents would throw parties and the folks would get drunk and then wander upstairs and molest them,” Thomas remembered. “Can you imagine being in your own home, in your own bed, waiting? The terror, the confusion. Can you imagine what that would do to your psyche?”

Participants struggled with terrible memories and many years of drug abuse. In the longhouse, they delved into those issues. A shaman—an ayahuasquero—who had travelled to B.C. from Peru worked alongside a “retreat team” that ran group-therapy sessions and meditation.

Participants’ reactions were encouraging.

“When I went to this retreat, it more or less helped me release the hurt and pain that I was carrying around and trying to bury…with drugs and alcohol,” a 41-year-old female patient said, quoted in a report on the experiment. “Ever since this retreat, I’ve been clean and sober.”

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